"The Academy has a problem," David Oyelowo said. "It's a problem that needs to be solved"

By Jodi Guglielmi
Updated January 19, 2016 10:20 AM
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VALERIE MACON/AFP/Getty

David Oyelowo is calling for a “radical and timely change” within the Academy Awards to tackle the lack of diversity among nominees.

Oyelowo, who was famously overlooked for his depiction of Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma at last year’s Oscar ceremony, sounded off on his thoughts about the race controversy at a gala honoring Academy president Cheryl Boone Issacs on Monday night, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

“The Academy has a problem,” said Oyelowo, 39, at the Sheraton Gateway Hotel in Los Angeles. “It’s a problem that needs to be solved.”

Calling this year’s all-white nominee list “unforgivable,” the British actor revealed that he had a private meeting with Boone to discuss his absence from last year’s nominations.

“A year ago, I did a film called Selma, and after the Academy Awards, Cheryl invited me to her office to talk about what went wrong then,” he explained. “We had a deep and meaningful [conversation]. For 20 opportunities to celebrate actors of color, actresses of color, to be missed last year is one thing; for that to happen again this year is unforgivable.”

Oyelowo said that he finds it difficult to turn his back on the Academy because of how important the ceremony is to actors and the film industry as a whole – making the lack of diversity even harder to accept.

“The reason why the Oscars are so important is because it is the zenith, it is the epitome, it is the height of celebration of artistic endeavor within the filmmaking community,” he said. “We grow up aspiring, dreaming, longing to be accepted into that august establishment because it is the height of excellence. I would like to walk away and say it doesn’t matter, but it does, because that acknowledgement changes the trajectory of your life, your career and the culture of the world we live in.”

He continued: “This institution doesn’t reflect its president and it doesn’t reflect this room. I am an Academy member and it doesn’t reflect me, and it doesn’t reflect this nation.”

The actor pointed out that two of the top films currently at the box office, Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Ride Along 2, are led by black actors.

He compared the battle over diversity at the Oscars to the 1960s campaign for African-American voting rights, using it to encourage the Academy to institute change faster.

“When Dr. King said we need the Voting Rights Act to be passed, LBJ said it’s too soon, it can’t be done. People were losing their lives. People weren’t allowed to vote. Dr. King said [we cannot] wait. What was done was done not in years but months,” he said. “The Academy is an institution in which they all say radical and timely change cannot happen quickly. It better happen quickly.”

“We cannot afford to get bitter, we cannot afford to get negative” he added. “But we must make our voice heard.”

But while Oyelowo calls for change, Boyz n the Hood director John Singleton said he doesn’t have a problem with this year’s nominee list.

“There’s only so many slots, though,” Singleton told Variety. “There are a couple of movies that may have [warranted attention] but … It’s all subjective. It’s almost like the lottery.”

“It’s like every year people complain. People even complain even when we have a lot of nominations. It is what it is,” he added. “I’ve been in the game for 25 years. You never know – it’s the luck of the draw for you. To me, I’m not surprised. I’m not disappointed either, as much as other people are disappointed. There’s a whole elevation of work that happens.”

On Monday, Isaacs released a statement saying she was “disappointed” over the lack of diversity represented at this year’s Academy Awards.

“I’d like to acknowledge the wonderful work of this year’s nominees. While we celebrate their extraordinary achievements, I am both heartbroken and frustrated about the lack of inclusion,” Isaacs wrote. “This is a difficult but important conversation, and it’s time for big changes. The Academy is taking dramatic steps to alter the makeup of our membership.”

Her statement comes amid fervent discussion over the controversy, and news that Jada Pinkett Smith and Spike Lee are planning to boycott this year’s awards ceremony.